Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Chemistry of Ashes

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

-- Sonnet 73, Shakespeare

Today is Ash Wednesday, in Latin, "dies cinerum," the Day of Cinders.

How long can you sit and watch a fire? The constant motion of the flickering flames fascinates and nearly hypnotizes. The live flames tell a story, whispering kinship. That's true at levels that run as deep as chemistry.

You warm yourself with the same reaction that makes fire burn. Carbon chains + oxygen = steam and carbon dioxide gas. You exhale the exhaust of fire. The structures so carefully built and pieced together in the growing limb are fuel for the flame, vaporized into a gas that slips away like so much vanity. Gas comes from the same root as "chaos." The old order melts away.

Yet there is something left when the fire is complete. Some elemental carbons sit solid in the fireplace, a residue only suitable for marking a line that soils a forehead.

Along with the carbon, if there was anything metal, especially one of the larger metals like iron, nickel, copper, silver, gold, these are too heavy to become gas and would be left behind as well, indistinguishable from the black carbon but assuredly there, broken in tiny bits. The constructed chains, the facade, it all burns away but the heavy metals stay. The elements may melt with the fervent heat but they persist. What is scattered can be gathered and used again.

What can take ashes and put them together into new life? You would need to reverse the reaction, to pull down the heaven above, catching carbon dioxide and water vapor, then shaping it like a potter shapes clay. The second law of thermodynamics says, rightfully, that this is very hard to do.

What you would need to reverse the reaction is an exhaled breath from another life. You would need to take in what another fire breathed out. "Breath" in Hebrew is "nephesh" which also means "soul." You would take in this exhaled soul and you would inhale, and if it was reorganized and reborn in the right configuration, you would live. Exhaust would become new life.

The second law of thermodynamics says that this is very hard to do. It is extremely improbable in a closed system. But it is not impossible. And we do not live in a closed system.

Today we watch the fire burn and draw stick figures with the ashes, crosses, plus signs, made from the elements of lost life. Any life, no matter how well lived, ends in ashes. All intentions, whether selfless or selfish, all the piecing together of the puzzle, all of it burns, igniting from the pressure of its own useless weight. Your mitochondria, where you burn all your carbon chains and run the combustion reaction that warms your skin, are also the direct cause of the poison molecules, the reactive oxygen species and the runaway electrons, that careen out of control and break apart your cells, aging your body and shattering your DNA. All fire has its exhaust. This can be papered over for a day, but it can never be avoided. Thanks be to God.

The next forty days are the age of carbon, of soot and charcoal, of smouldering vapors, a time to wait in the ashes, continuing the slow burn, sitting in the broken pieces, waiting for a breath from above.

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